Beatrix Potter: drawn from nature

At the age of eight Beatrix Potter was already studying and recording the characteristics of a wide variety of animals, birds and insects in a home-made sketchbook. This habit of spending time observing the form and structure of living things continued throughout her childhood and into adolescence.

Potter was particularly drawn to the delicate and complex form of insects, becoming a keen amateur entomologist. She made frequent visits to London's Natural History Museum (less than a mile from her home in Bolton Gardens) to study and sketch the insect collection; at home, she learned to prepare slides of specimens to view with her brother's microscope.

Studies of a Tortoiseshell butterfly and a Painted Lady butterfly, with magnified studies of the wings, by Beatrix Potter, about 1887, watercolour and pen and ink on card. Museum no. BP.249, Linder Bequest cat. no. LB 335. © Image courtesy Frederick Warne & Co Ltd.

All this painstaking work paid off: Potter developed the eye of an expert investigative scientist, able to draw living creatures with great conviction – throughout her life her work was guided by the principle of portraying nature as accurately as possible. She used a fine, dry brush to define meticulously and minutely the anatomy of even the most delicate specimens. Fascination with scientific accuracy underpins Potter's artistic technique. A bee, beetle, butterfly, ladybird and spider all enjoy supporting roles in The Tale of Mrs Tittlemouse (published 1910). Potter observed them, and her "most terribly tidy particular little mouse" with astonishing attention to detail.

Studies of bees and other insects, by Beatrix Potter, about 1895, watercolour over pencil. Linder Collection cat. no. LC 19/B/5. © Victoria & Albert Museum, London, courtesy Frederick Warne & Co Ltd. and The Trustees of the Linder Collection

Flower painting was a conventional subject for a girl of Beatrix's background. From a young age she drew inspiration from books such as John E. Sowerby's British Wild Flowers, a lavish present from her grandmother, and Vere Foster's popular drawing manuals. Mostly, however, Beatrix shared the Pre-Raphaelites' passion for the meticulous copying of flowers and plants from life. These drawings blend characteristics of botanical illustration, concerned with the accurate depiction and identification of plants, with those of flower painting, a genteel art celebrating the beauty of nature. Whether drawing for serious study or for enjoyment, Beatrix combines scientific detachment with a keen sense of wonder and an expert appreciation of composition and design.

(Left to right:) Drawing of cornflowers, by Beatrix Potter, about 1880, watercolour over pencil. Museum no. BP.904, Linder Bequest cat. no. LB 29. © Image courtesy Frederick Warne & Co Ltd.; Drawing of cotton sedge with white wildflowers, by Beatrix Potter, late 19th century/early 20th century, watercolour and pen and ink over pencil. Museum no. BP.912(iii), Linder Bequest cat. no. LB 254. © Image courtesy Frederick Warne & Co Ltd.

Beatrix later remarked that the "careful botanical studies of my youth" informed the "reality" of her fantasy drawings. Precisely drawn flowers populate her prettiest and best-known books: geraniums in The Tale of Peter Rabbit; carnations and fuchsias in The Tale of Benjamin Bunny; water lilies in The Tale of Mr. Jeremy Fisher; foxgloves in The Tale of Jemima Puddle-duck, and an abundance of lilies, pansies, roses and snapdragons in The Tale of Tom Kitten.

Setting for 'The Veal and Ham Pie', by Beatrix Potter, about 1902, watercolour and pen and ink over pencil. Museum no. BP.502, Linder Bequest cat. no. LB 751. © Victoria and Albert Museum, London, courtesy Frederick Warne & Co Ltd.
Background image: Studies of bees and other insects, by Beatrix Potter, about 1895, watercolour over pencil. Linder Collection cat. no. LC 19/B/5. © The Trustees of The Linder Collection, courtesy Frederick Warne & Co Ltd.